Andrew Ridgeley interview: “Wham! was our friendship set to music”
By John Earls | September 23, 2023
For the first time since George Michael and Andrew Ridgeley professionally parted company in 1986, a major Wham! reissue is happening, with a singles compilation and 7” boxset. As their incredible story is finally told, Andrew gives a very rare interview, while Pepsi & Shirlie also tell their part in Wham!’s all too brief heyday.
Forget about Bonfire Night: 5 November 1979 was an explosive day in music history and for the career prospects of 16-year-old Andrew Ridgeley.
That was the date he left Bushey Meads secondary school and the day he and George Michael – or ‘Yog’ as Andrew still affectionately calls him, from the phonetic ‘Yoghir’ pronunciation of Georgios – decided it was finally time to form a band together.
Pop historians already know Ridgeley was the initial driving force behind Wham!, the confident teenager who persuaded his shy, awkward best mate to be in a band.
It’s a genesis story that Andrew recalls clearly, reminiscing: “We were 14 when I first brought up the idea of forming a band. Yog said he needed to get his O-Levels out of the way first.
“November 5th was a Monday, a few weeks into our A-Levels. At breaktime, I told our form tutor: ‘Look, I’m leaving school’.
“She said: ‘That’s just as well, as we were going to ask you to leave’. I was pleased – I’d got in first! I phoned a nearby college, Cassio, and got an interview to go there instead.
“It made me realise it was now or never to form a band. When I’d raised the idea with Yog after O-Levels, he said: ‘Well, er… It’ll have to be after my A-Levels.’
“I thought he was going to keep making excuses. I phoned George and said: ‘Look, we’re forming a band today. We’re doing it today, otherwise it’s never going to happen.’ There was a pause and Yog said: ‘OK, yeah. Let’s do it.’”
Andrew would have been expelled from Bushey Meads for truancy, but there’s no sign of the juvenile delinquent as he greets Classic Pop at the King’s Cross headquarters of Wham!’s record label, Sony.
It’s a minor miracle Ridgeley is being interviewed: he retired the second that Wham! finished in 1986 and, barring his solo album Son Of Albert in 1990, was barely heard from until his 2019 memoir, Wham! George & Me.
Still, for a former recluse, Andrew Ridgeley is quite the talker. A keen cyclist and surfer, he’s in extraordinarily good shape: more pop stars should sack it all off, if the quiet life means they look as trim as Ridgeley in his navy zip-up fleece.
He’s as relaxed as he seemed in early Wham! interviews, quick to laugh and only pausing to pick an exact word: his mum Jenny was an English teacher, after all.
The reception to that autobiography made Andrew reassess his attitude to Wham!’s legacy. “Meeting the fans at signings was a very nice experience indeed,” he grins.
“The palpable affection and goodwill that people hold Wham! in, right through the age groups, was remarkable for me.
“Some amazing stories were recounted to me. One lady had flown in from Kabul. Her brother had Fantastic on cassette in Afghanistan, where music was banned under the Taliban.
“In the early 80s, that cassette went around their village. It was a remarkable example of how deep and strong the effect of music can have in shaping people’s lives.”
BUILDING THE LEGACY
Now personally aware of Wham!’s importance, and with the 40th anniversary of Fantastic looming, Ridgeley and George’s estate decided it was time for both a singles compilation and a Netflix documentary so that: “We could build a legacy, which would do justice to Wham! and everything it achieved.”
The resulting film, Wham! The Biography by Fyre Festival documentary director Chris Smith, is excellent: evocative footage, overlaid with George and Andrew the only voices heard.
It’s compelling in highlighting the intensity of 80s pop stardom, outdated attitudes to sexuality and just how short a time the Wham! comet was in orbit. Equally importantly, you’re reminded of how downright hilarious George Michael was.
“Comedy and music were the pillars on which our friendship was based,” notes Ridgeley. “We went to see the Monty Python films The Life Of Brian and The Meaning Of Life at the cinema together. The Mr Creosote scene in The Meaning Of Life was so funny, I really did fall off my chair laughing.
“Our shared sense of humour was extremely juvenile. We were puerile and smutty. We stayed that way. Our sense of humour didn’t mature in the least.
“In Wham!, we did some shockingly juvenile things. We went through a period where, whenever we met people – especially music executives – when their hands went out to shake, we’d withdraw and…” Andrew mimes the age-old joke of putting his hand to his nose and waggling it. “So puerile! But also deeply amusing.
“We were just taking the rise out of the whole situation we found ourselves in, which we did a lot. We took making music seriously, but we didn’t take anything else seriously.”
That camaraderie was an essential part of Wham!’s appeal. Two days after meeting Ridgeley, Classic Pop quizzes Pepsi & Shirlie over Zoom about their thoughts on the group.
“The story of Wham! is the story of George and Andrew’s friendship,” believes Shirlie. “I’m so pleased the documentary shows that. It shows what an integral part Andrew played, and what an inspiration he was to George.”
Pepsi nods enthusiastically, continuing: “I hope people who gave Andrew such a hard time in Wham! will see the truth now. Without him, there never would have been Wham!.
“Andrew was a real support for George. George was finding his way in life during Wham!, whereas Andrew was full of life and ready for showtime. It’s a lovely film.”
As confident as Ridgeley was, there were scores of obstacles that could have prevented the duo finding their way.
Their first band, The Specials-influenced The Executive, was formed with Andrew’s older brother Paul on drums, plus their friends David Austin – later George’s manager – and Andy Leaver on guitar.
As Ridgeley points out: “Two guitarists and no bassist, with me rudimentarily on keyboards. The Executive consisted of everyone we knew who had instruments.”
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Their first gig was at a party at Andy’s parents’ house – “How his mum and dad let us do a gig, I don’t know” – before a first public concert at Bushey & Oxhey Scout Hut. “We played to 16-year-olds who’d had a couple of snakebites,” laughs Andrew. “I remember it as being absolutely riotous.
“The Executive had some good little tunes. Had we stuck together, it might have happened. We were starting to become less ska/reggae and more pop. You had me, Yog and Dave, who’s a talented songwriter, too. I don’t see why it couldn’t have succeeded.”
Instead, The Executive supported punk staples The Vibrators at Harrow Technical College. That worked, but then David claimed he’d booked a headline show at the venue. He hadn’t.
“There was a conflagration, as you can imagine,” says Andrew wryly. “And that was the end of The Executive.”
In the fallout, Paul and David joined other bands. Andy died of cancer aged just 21. “That was so very, very sad,” sighs Ridgeley. “Andy died so quickly and so young.” Fantastic is dedicated to Andy.
George auditioned for a band, too. “They were a soul/funk band,” recalls Andrew. “I’m not sure what they were called, but two of their members went on to be in Imagination. It wasn’t a genre Yog particularly liked, so we decided that we should start writing new songs ourselves instead.”
Wham! Rap soon arrived, inspired by a chant of “Wham! Bam! I am the man!” that Andrew would perform while he, George and Shirlie were out clubbing. The pair moved onto Club Tropicana and Careless Whisper.
Far from Ridgeley getting royalties for George’s debut solo single from his mate’s loyalty, the classic started from Andrew’s guitar chords.
However, while Wham! Rap was complete, there was only “maybe half” of Club Tropicana and just the chorus and a verse of Careless Whisper ready on the demo that Wham! deluged record companies with.
“I don’t really know what possessed us to send out such an unfinished demo,” acknowledges Ridgeley. “We were just so confident that those three songs were hits – and obviously we were right!”
Famously, the only person to spot Wham!’s potential was Mark Dean, a neighbour of Andrew’s who’d signed Soft Cell and ABC to Universal. He was starting his own label, Innervision.
Wham!’s record deal was notoriously terrible, but Ridgeley is even-handed about Innervision’s treatment. “Had we not signed Mark’s deal, we wouldn’t have been making records at all, I’m pretty sure of that,” he shrugs.
“Yog’s dad got a lawyer to look over the contract first, but we were way down the list of his priorities, and none of us could believe how long he was taking.
“Mark gave us an ultimatum: sign the contract or lose the deal. I’m sure he meant it and he’d have moved onto the next act if we hadn’t signed. It was the worst record deal ever signed: we didn’t get paid for two years and didn’t get paid on 12” singles at all.
“At least we were making records. But we expected to get paid for making those records, and that seemed to be a source of some confusion at Innervision.”
Wham! Rap initially stalled at No.105 in the UK charts. What happened next made Andrew realise the scale of the talent of his best friend. “We needed a hit,” he remembers. “We were demoing two other tracks, but they didn’t have it. Then Yog pulled Young Guns out of the bag.
“It was different gravy, even when compared to Wham! Rap. That was the point that I realised Yog’s songwriting was developing in leaps and bounds.”
Excellent as it was, Young Guns was also struggling at UK No.42. Another artist – “Dave recently found out that it was probably Wah! Heat,” reveals Ridgeley – cancelled their Top Of The Pops appearance at the very last minute, leaving BBC executives to relax rules that only Top 40 acts could appear. Wham! were ready… Sort of.
“Top Of The Pops’ producer, Michael Hurll, oh my God!” splutters Andrew. “That show was his fiefdom, he was a proper little Napoleon.
“We’d been at the studio since seven in the sodding morning when we were berated for not performing ebulliently enough at one of the rehearsals. I told him: ‘We’ve done this four times already!’
“By the time of the actual recording, I was bored and despised Michael Hurll so much that I let it get in the way of my performance. Thankfully, the girls and Yog were more than adequate compensation for my lack of brio.”
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Ridgeley’s 40-year-old fury is a surprise to Shirlie, who laughs delightedly: “I loved it! I was more scared about how I looked than anything else, so I spent £60 on my Melissa Caplan dress, which was a fortnight’s wages. You were bossed around on Top Of The Pops, but I wasn’t disappointed at all.”
Pepsi, who was still trying to become a session singer while future Style Council vocalist Dee C Lee was Shirlie’s then-Wham! partner, tells her friend: “I remember that dress, it was lovely!
“I saw that Wham! performance and thought: ‘A white girl with a black girl? Interesting, never seen that before.’ But I assumed Wham! would only be around for a little while.”
Young Guns promptly peaked at No.3, with one final hurdle facing Wham!: follow-up single Bad Boys. In the new film, George admits it was written to a formula and that it’s his least favourite Wham! single by far, despite reaching No.2.
Andrew agrees, to a point: “It’s a bloody good pop song with a great hook,” he insists. “Bad Boys is a great dance track. If you rewrite the lyrics, Bob’s your uncle. After the first two singles, we were again youth railing against the world. But Bad Boys is a less well enunciated take.
“Wham! Rap and Young Guns were both witty and tongue-in-cheek. Bad Boys? Yog would agree it’s literally witless and just lacks that humour. Yog hated the song, I hate the video more.”
HITTING THE CLUB
It was time to finish Club Tropicana properly. “Club Trop was pure Wham!,” smiles Andrew. “That allowed us to throw off the Rebel Without A Cause social conscience element the music press were keen for Wham! to represent.
In one fell swoop, Club Trop reset Wham!’s image and artistic direction. Its tone was different and it liberated us to write more songs like that.”
With Fantastic being assembled, the decision was made that George should take sole control of Wham!’s songwriting.
Barely anyone in pop history is as good a songwriter as George Michael, but still: the three songs Andrew co-wrote were all big hits. So why stop? “Because we had a miles better songwriter in the room, it’s as simple as that,” responds Andrew.
He’s calm, explaining the decision as if it should be obvious. “Yog’s songwriting was much better than mine. I genuinely felt he’d be able to shoulder those duties, so there was no point me trying to insist I should write, too.
“It was apparent that Yog could do it on his own. If I’d worked a little harder – or maybe at all – then things might have been different.
“But I saw things very black-and-white and felt I couldn’t write songs of the same quality as Yog.
“It was an easy decision. In fact, it was so easy, it wasn’t even a decision at all. The reality was, there was only one way Wham! could go.”
Despite recognising George’s talent, Andrew admits the other three originals on Fantastic were “filler at best,” adding: “Ray Of Sunshine has something to it, but I can’t even remember Come On.”
Fair enough, but Nothing Looks The Same In The Light is beautiful, a classic early George Michael ballad. Andrew throws Classic Pop the kind of disappointed look you give someone who’s just ordered omelette and chips in a Chinese restaurant. “You think? It’s so dreary, not my cup of tea at all.”
Fantastic flew to No.1, meaning it was time for Wham!’s first full tour. Classic Pop is deeply jealous of anyone who attended the Club Fantastic live shows.
Indeed, Andrew’s favourite forgotten moment unearthed for Wham! The Biography is from a short film shown after Gary Crowley’s supporting DJ set, where Wham! go back to Bushey Meads to gently tease Ted Halliwell, their old headmaster.
“I loved that tour,” enthuses Andrew. “I hadn’t changed since we started The Executive. All I’d ever wanted was to write songs and perform them. All the rest of it was bullshit. That tour, all of Wham!’s tours, were what I was in a band for. That was good enough for me.”
Andrew’s onstage confidence chimed with Pepsi & Shirlie loving life as Wham!’s dancers and backing vocalists.
“George and Andrew were the pilots, me and Pepsi were the passengers,” believes Shirlie. “We were the girls next door. We weren’t models, we were ordinary girls with extraordinary lives. That made us relatable.
“So many girls said they wanted to be Pepsi & Shirlie, but that was really so they could get near George and Andrew. We had a healthy view that Wham! wasn’t about us two, it was all about the two boys.”
As the well-placed onlookers at blossoming megastardom, Pepsi & Shirlie’s routines could also be relatably realistic, as Pepsi laughs: “We were taking everything in, so much so that I’d sometimes look at Shirl and realise her arms were dancing the other way to mine in a routine.
“In the show, we’d sometimes briefly walk offstage. Whenever I walked back onstage, it was like walking back into a fantasy.”
Psychologically at least, the pair had a vital part to play, as Shirlie explains: “In the early days, I was a security blanket for George. He didn’t have loads of confidence then. He’d sometimes literally grab hold of me for comfort during a show. He thought: ‘I’m not ready to be up here on my own yet’ and I felt we were his security.”
George had disclosed his sexuality to Andrew and Shirlie during the filming of the Club Tropicana video. Unable to tell the wider world, he described the George Michael of Wham! as a “character” to display to the world while he was exploring his true self.
Ridgeley accepts he was fortunate to be able to be himself in Wham!, saying: “I’m pretty much as you see it. Wham! was a vehicle.
“Very early on, we understood that Wham! could only be temporary. For George to develop as a songwriter, he had to do it on his own, because Wham! was defined by the two of us.
“Essentially, Wham! was an expression of friendship made into music. That allowed George to write a certain style of song, which was limiting. Yog was the songwriter, but Wham! had parameters and constraints. That’s why it could never be permanent.”
Further constraints arrived when a nine-month dispute with Innervision prevented Wham! from recording, before signing to Sony. “Yog didn’t write songs then,” Andrew recalls. “The only new thing was Whamshake, a song that was close but just didn’t have the wow factor.
“Then suddenly George came up with Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go. That was several quantum leaps forward from anything else. The chorus came first. When Yog played me it, set to a LinnDrum beat, I was: ‘Wow! That has the magic.’”
It was Wham!’s first UK No.1 single, followed by Freedom, I’m Your Man and The Edge Of Heaven. Ridgeley much prefers Make It Big’s songwriting, explaining: “We had carte blanche and weren’t so narrowly defined. On Make It Big, the shackles were off and Yog went in any direction, with his voice the only defining factor.
“Yog rated his talents in descending order as songwriter, singer, producer. I’d rate him as singer, songwriter, producer, because his voice was just so powerful.
“He was an extraordinary singer who developed into an extraordinary songwriter. The essential magic in Yog’s voice was always there, then he worked so hard at writing.”
Make It Big saw Wham! conquer America, with the Whamamerica! stadium tour. “It was important for us, and especially Yog, to break the States,” reflects Andrew. “That stadium tour sealed it. The support artists were nuts. The Pointer Sisters supported Wham!, which was just bonkers.”
Wham! ended with their landmark show at Wembley Stadium on 28 June 1986.
“The four of us had great moments in Wham!, but Wembley was a great moment for the fans,” smiles Pepsi, as Shirlie nods: “You only appreciate now how amazing that show was. I’m in awe of what a great gig Wembley was.”
While everyone says Wham! ended at exactly the right time, Andrew discloses George “talked about a third Wham! album.” He reveals: “I’m not sure I’d have wanted to jump through the same hoops for another year by that point. Our profile had become Premier League and it wasn’t something I’d got into music for.
“It was an intrusion that I wasn’t prepared to have, so I was quite content to step away.”
How similar would Wham! Three have sounded to Faith? “The title track could quite easily have been a Wham! song, so could one or two others on that album.”
Promoting Make It Big on BBC1’s Wogan, Ridgeley was asked what he wanted to do next. Presciently, he replies: “I’d like to retire with grace.”
George, Andrew, Pepsi and Shirlie remained friends, having occasional informal Wham! reunions at George’s house. But Andrew kept his promise. “I never had any ambition to have a career in music like Yog,” he explains.
“I only ever wanted to be in a band with Yog and that was it. I obviously achieved that ambition and genuinely had no aspirations beyond that. Maybe that was the wrong decision, but I couldn’t see myself making music with anyone else. It’s not within me.”
Tantalisingly, Ridgeley remixed Club Tropicana in 2022 with TV/film composer Dru Masters. Is he about to make more music? “Never say never,” he says, in a tone that suggests “Actually, you can say never.”
Is there anything further to come from Wham!? “Maybe there could be a Wham! hologram show like Abba’s,” ponders Shirlie.
“That’d be amazing!” gasps Pepsi. “Our routines would evolve into being really slick. Those holograms? They would be really on it.”
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